Levelling the playing fields…

The Electoral Commission are supposed to be the independent ‘watchdogs’ of Britain’s democracy, with responsibility for regulating many of the campaign activities (and finances) of Britain’s political parties and yet it seems that they’re just as much part of the ‘establishment’ as anything else if Devil’s Kitchen’s explanation of the current situation facing UKIP is anything to go by…

A UKIP donor, who has lived and worked in the UK all of his life, does not fill his Electoral Register form and the Electoral Commission decide that UKIP must repay (to the Treasury) the entirety of Alan Brown’s donations for the year 2005.

And just to clarify the situation…

So, just to spell that out again: a clerical error regarding a British individual’s electoral status (that UKIP could not possibly be expected to anticipate or, reasonably, even know about) results in the Electoral Commission deciding to claw back the money (which goes to the Treasury) and effectively bankrupt UKIP in the process.

This is all because, apparently, the donor in question, a Mr Alan Bown, managed to neglect to register himself on the Electoral Register between 2004 and 2006, despite the fact that was on there at the same address up to 2004 and since got himself back on to the register… at the same address.
Meanwhile, as DK correctly points out…

The Lib Dems receive a donation of £2.4 million from a convicted fraudster based overseas, and the Electoral Commission considers that the party has no case to answer.

This is, of course, Michael Brown, who is currently serving a two-year prison sentence for perjury and making a false declaration to obtain a passport, and who was also not registered to vote, but got away with making his £2.4 million donation to the Lib Dems because he routed through a ‘cash shell’ that even the Electoral Commission doubts was actually trading in the UK.

It is not clear to the Commission that 5th Avenue Partners Ltd was carrying on business in the UK at the time the donations were made.

Iain Dale is, naturally, delighted with this turn of events, and well he might be.

Labour are still embroiled in the whole ‘loans for peerages’ business.

The Lib Dems still face losing its £2.4 million donation from Brown – the Electoral Commission’s press release states that they are ‘considering the available evidence and expect to reach a decision on whether to apply for such an order in the next few weeks‘. That was issued on 27 October 2006, seventeen weeks ago, and they’ve still not come to a decision.

And now UKIP look set to lose £360,000 or so in donations because of a minor cock-up.

And yet there has been relatively little attention given to the Tory’s finances, despite the fact that they held off declaring their own loans to the Electoral Commission to the very last minute while they paid off £5 million of them in order to ensure that the sources of those loans, and the terms of which they were made have never publicly disclosed – and replaced them with loans from other third party’s of of near unknown provenance…

Like the ‘Medlina Foundation’, which loaned the Tories £950,000 and who gave, as their contact address, a lawyer’s office in Liechtenstein.

Or how about Big Ben Films, a cash shell front for Johan Eliasch, a Swedish businessman, based in London, who is the chairman and CEO of sporting goods manufacturer Head. Eliasch is also a banker, film producer and deputy treasurer of the Conservative Party and an advisor to William Hague and member of the advisory board of the Centre for Social Justice, a think-tank set up by Iain Duncan Smith.

Strangely, according to the Inland Revenue, Big Ben Films was listed as a non-trading company at the time the loan (£2.6 million) was made.

And then there’s Ironmade Ltd, another non-trading company that loaned the Tories a shade over £1 million on 1 June 2005, having only been registered with Companies House on 13 April that same year.

Whie I’m no great fan of UKIP, I’m with DK all the way on this one – stripping UKIP of its funds for nothing more than a simple clerical error is way over the top, and its a bit rich of Iain Dale to coming the smart-arse over party funding when his own party is actively exploiting every fucking loophole in the book to keep its own funding shrouded in as much secrecy as possible.

A level playing field this ain’t and the Electoral Commission should both reconsider it decision on UKIP’s funding AND pull its fucking finger out when it comes to the Tories working the rules for all they’re worth.

Once all the current investigations are concluded, and well before we go anywhere near providing state funding for political parties – and I don’t support that anyway, I think there is a real need to properly clean out the entire cesspit of political party financing, and that, for me, means…

1. An amnesty on prosecutions for abuse of the honours system or in relation to party funding – look we’re not going to get to the truth if people think they could wind up doing time.

2. A full public inquiry into the funding of political parties over the last, say 20-30 years – one that requires a full and frank disclosure from all political parties of past donors, loans, etc over that time.

3. Alterations to the existing rules on corporate donations to prevent the identities of donors being hidden behind shell companies – let’s see exactly where the funding is coming from.

4. The removal of one of the biggest of all current barriers to democratic participation, the requirement that all candidates put up a £500 deposit in order to stand for election.

Think about that last one for a moment.

In order for any new, or current, minor political party to step up and try and challenge the current dominance of the political system by the big three established parties, the present system puts a tariff on their efforts of well in excess of £300,000 in order for them to run enough candidates to be consider a genuinely national party.

Is that not putting up a blatant barrier to participation in the electoral system?

Yes, such a change would clearly be to the benefit of both UKIP and extremist parties on both the left and right, making it easier for them to run considerably more candidates at general elections, but then as far as I’m concerned that a good thing – the democratic way of doing things is to allow people to stand and let the electorate decide and not price people – and smaller political parties – out of the democratic process.

Democracy should me not only that anyone over the age of 18 can vote in election but also that any of an appropriate age should also be able to stand for election to any political office, regardless of the financial means at their disposal.

Anyway, speaking of loopholes and the exploitation thereof, I’ve been taking a good close look at the provisions of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the law under which the Electoral Commission regulates the conduct and campaign finances of political parties and their donors/supporters, and in particular taking very careful note of Part VI of the Act, sections 85-89 inclusive, and what it has to say about ‘Third Parties’.

A Third Party, in case you’re unaware of the ins and outs of this Act is any individual or organisation that wishes to spend more than spend more than £10,000 in England, or £5,000 in each of Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland supporting or opposing a party or group of candidates. Third Parties have to be registered with the Electoral Commission if they wish to spend more than these amounts and, once registered, are subject to regulation by the Electoral Commission in terms of receiving donations and the amounts of campaign expenditure the can incur during periods leading in to elections and must report donations and expenditure to the Commission for inclusion in its public registers.

The precise rules on expenditure and regulated periods vary, depending on the election.

For a general election, for example, the regulated period is a full year prior to the election and the caps on expenditure run to £793,000 in England, £108,000 in Scotland, £60,000 in Wales and £27,000 in Northern Ireland, while for other elections the regulated period is 4 month prior to the election and the spending caps are much lower.

You’ll notice, if you’ve been paying attention, that these rules cover not only campaigning for a political party, but also against other parties, and that why I’ve already emailing an enquiry to the Electoral Commission requesting that they review the activities of Fox News Lite with a view to considering whether and in what circumstances it may be necessary that it – or rather the company behind it, Doughty Media Ltd – should be considered to be operating as a Third Party under PPERA and therefore subject to regulation by the Electoral Commission.

Make no mistake, this is not a one-off enquiry but the beginning of what I expect to be an extensive dialogue with the Commission on the subject of internet-based high-cost/value third party media operations, of which Fox News Lite is the first to emerge and the ultimate objective is to persuade the Electoral Commission to undertake a formal review of such developments using powers granted to it under section 6 of the Act:

6. – (1) The Commission shall keep under review, and from time to time submit reports to the Secretary of State on, the following matters, namely-

(f) political advertising in the broadcast and other electronic media;

(g) the law relating to the matters mentioned in each of paragraphs (a) to (f)

Subsections (a) to (e) cover other stuff like referendums, electoral boundaries, regulation of political parties, etc.

In particular, one of the key issues I intend to raise is the matter of the persistence and longevity of political advertising on the Internet, as opposed to other forms of political advertising such as party political broadcasts and election leaflets.

While the latter are, to all intents and purposes, transient – here today, gone tomorrow – internet based advertising ‘hang around’ long after the time at which it was first released, making it relatively easy to bypass the regulations covering regulated periods prior to elections.

Take Fox News Lite’s recent anti-Livingstone ‘attack ad’ – I haven’t checked the exact details but I would expect that the Mayoral elections in 2008 will be, like other elections, subject to a regulated period in terms of campaign activities by both political parties and third parties, such that any significant campaign expenditure during that period would have to be registered with the Electoral Commission.

That’s fine, so far as election broadcasts, leaflets, etc go, but when it comes to the internet, attack ads like those produced by Fox News Lite can be quite easily by put together and published well outside these regulated periods, but remain live and accessible on the Internet right up to the day of the election. In short, the system of regulated campaign periods is next to meaningless when you’re working with a medium in which campaign broadcasts can be produced months in advance and just left to run right the way through the regulated period.
Its a pretty obvious loophole and one very easily exploited – at least up to now given that this is something that the Electoral Commission almost certainly hasn’t considered, although when one considers that Fox News Lite already bypasses OFCOM regulations on political broadcasting and that Iain Dale, its director of programming, was very vocal in his opposition to EU proposals to regulate internet ‘broadcasting’, one has to take the view that those behind Fox News Lite probably are aware of this loophole and are looking to exploit it for as long as possible – which may well not be quite as long as they might have hoped if I’m successful in my dialogue with the Electoral Commission
In most respects these regulations are a complete and wholly unworkable bag of shite, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still a world of difference between geneuine community sites like YouTube or individual video bloggers and parodists, like the wonderful Gweirdo, and an expensive US-style on-line propaganda operation like Fox News Lite – the former needs no regulation at all, the latter, at the very least, should be compelled to be open and honest about its political motives and cut out all the pretence about being ‘anti-establishment’ and trying to sell itself as giving an independent view point – which seems to me to make the Electoral Commission the ideal regulator for the job.

It’ll be interesting to see whether the Electoral Commission is prepared to take this up – and I’m in no mood to be taking ‘no’ for an answer – and also what reaction if any all this may prompt from amongst Tory ranks – if the last few weeks have been anything to go by, most likely the usual bullshit about ‘Brownite plots’, which is a complete load of bollocks, not least as if the Fox News Lite lot were at all intent on being honest about their political activities and motives then they’d have already registered as a third party, anyway.

So before any of this goes through the usual piss-poor spin machine, it’s worth pointing out that this isn’t about trying to shut down Fox News Lite or curb their activities – the most I’d expect from this is that the Commission takes a view on whether professional media operations like Fox News Lite, and any similar future set-ups spawned by supporters of other political parties, should be registered under the existing regulations and whether, indeed, the existing regulations are adequate or the purpose of covering these kind of semi-detached professional political advertisers or whether they need to be updated in light of recent developments to ensure that all parties have to play by the same basic rules.

It’s only fair, after all.

6 thoughts on “Levelling the playing fields…

  1. Hi Unity, a very interesting article. Just one point I am having difficulty with, which maybe you can clear up.

    They probably don’t see themselves that way, but I regard 18DS as no more than a glorified video blog. Perhaps something like Michelle Malkin’s Hot Air vlog, only with a bigger budget and better organisation.

    If this is the case (and a big if, because others may take the reasonable view that it is a fully-fledged internet channel), is there, or should there be, anything wrong with a blog campaigning for one political party or the other?

    There are some very large blogs out there, ConservativeHome, for instance. If they started producing videos as well, how would that differ from 18DS?

    Apologies if this is a silly question. I’m not up to speed with broadcasting laws in the UK. Does 18DS have to register anywhere as a broadcaster? If not, can it not be argued that the only thing that separates it from other video blogs is the scale of its operation? And if that is the case, it would not be in order to regulate it, just as one would not really expect to regulate an ordinary blog.

    Just my thoughts. As I said, I don’t really know much about this area.

  2. The issue here, Bel, is one of scale.

    An individual blogger making their own videos at home is of no consequence in terms of electoral law because the financial resources expended on that activity are never going to amount to anything like the sums at which regulation kicks in.

    A professional or semi-pro media operation in its own premises with its own paid staff is a very different proposition, and it that kind of set up that I’m asking the Electoral Commission to review here.

    I should also say that this should have no effect on 18DS’s content/output (or that of Conservative Home, if the operation there is big enough to pull it into regulation) – any broadcast regulations fall under OFCOM’s purview and not the Electoral Commission, and do not extend to the Internet – all it would do is compel them to be open about their political affiliations and report on the their expenditure – more openness and transparency, but no effective restrictions on activities unless they’re spending serious sums of money on their activities.

  3. Perhaps the element of live programming sets it apart from traditional video blogs and leans more towards an internet channel. I’m not sure either way.

  4. To be honest, I don’t think the modus operandi matters from my reading of PPERA – its purely a matter of how political/partisan, how much cash is going into it and how honest it is about its activities.

  5. Just noticed we posted at almost the same time 🙂

    Thank you for the explanation. It’s a lot clearer to me now, particularly the different roles that OFCOM and the Commission have to play.

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